Sitka, Alaska – and why its worth finding a cruise itinerary that includes it!

Sitka, on the Pacific Coast of Barenof Island in Alaska, is one of the more unusual ports to see featured on an Alaskan itinerary. Originally built by Russian traders in the early 1800’s it has a very different feel to the wild west, gold rush mining towns that form most of the other ports of call in the area and is definitely worth a visit if you get the chance!!

Baranof Island is covered mainly covered by the huge Tongrass National Forest -the island is 100 miles long but the the coast road only extends about seven miles on either side of the town! Looming over Sitka from across the sound is Mount Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano and bird sanctuary, which looks eerily like Mount Fuji. Smaller, heavily wooded, islands fill the channel and some of the most popular excursions are out on the water – fishing, whale watching, kayaking or visiting the puffins on Mount Edgecumbe.

Shore based excursions take you out to the edge of the Tongass Forest or to one of the destinations in town – just do a little homework before booking as the town runs free shuttle buses from the port to the town centre, which is flat and compact so almost everywhere is easily accessible on your own. Some ships moor out in Sitka Sound and use tenders to bring people in to the same point – Harrigan Hall on the edge of Crescent Harbor. You might want to tale a look at the Port Profile for Sitka published in our talkExplore group on Facebook for a few ideas of things to do. The ‘Fortress of the bear’ and the Raptor Rescue Centre are both on the edge of town and accessible by bus or taxi.

The town hosts the Internationally renowned annual Sitka Summer Music festival which runs in various locations around the town including the Sheldon Jackson College which itself is the base for the Sitka Fine Arts summer camp. We were lucky enough to fall across an amazing FREE lunchtime concert with two absolutely world class cellists and a local ballet dancer! We reached the hall by shuttle bus, feet and serendipity – we weren’t actually looking for it at all, but fell across it by accident! Afterwards we spoke to some people from the ship who had paid $59 each for the coach trip into town and the concert! It hadn’t cost us a penny….although they did get coffee!

Sitka was originally home to the Tlingit people who fought a huge battle against the Russians from their fort built of sapling Sitka spruce trees – the site is preserved and honoured within the lovely temperate rainforest – Totem National Park which is also home to 18 Tlingit and Haida totem poles collected from all over Alaska – ‘gifted ‘ by the First Nations people to be exhibited at the 1904 Exposition – they were relocated here after the exhibition rather than being returned to their original homes and now look out across Sitka Sound and Indian River – very atmospheric and definitely worth a visit!

If you are travelling with kids a walk around Crescent Harbor will bring you to Sika’s brand new musical play park – full of colourful instruments and drums as well as the more conventional climbing frames and slides, it is definitely somewhere for the kids to run off steam! Further on you will find the Sitka Sound Science Centre, – five aquariums, touch tanks, a killer whale skeleton and a salmon hatchery give kids a real hands on experience!

There are free museums at Harrigan Centennial Hall, where the free shuttle drops you, on the Sheldon Jackson Campus and in the ground floor of Russian Bishop’s House. The upper floor of the House is accessible on a free guided tour but the most evocative building relating to the towns Russian heritage as the city of ‘New Archangel’ is St Michaels Cathedral, an onion domed, icon filled building on Lincoln Street not far from the shuttle drop-off.

Shopping is slightly different to other Alaskan ports, with shops showing a strong Russian influence, but we were very impressed by the efforts that the town was making to interact with cruise passengers, almost every street corner had a pitch set up for a locally made jewellery stall, art exhibition or a hotdog stand- you can read my blog below on young Nate and his entrepreneurial friends to find out more…

We really liked Sitka and ran out of time to see all we wanted to –  go if you get the chance, you are bound to have a great time there too. We were really happy just walking the sites and didn’t wish that we had taken a tour at all!

Whatever you choose to do, we hope you have a great day portExploring!!

Who’d like to win a cruise?!

I love a good competition don’t you? 

Especially once that might win you a cruise or cruise related goodies!  I suddenly realised that there were a few I had entered that had closing dates coming up shortly so I thought it would be friendly to share them with you all – if you know of a competition I’ve missed then please add a link in the comments!

Good luck and please do let me know if you win a cruise – especially if you need someone to come with you!!

PS: Tiny little reality check…. I suspect most of these are UK only competitions but if you are from elsewhere you can always check and see!!

August 7th

Win a ‘the chance to experience the new P&O ship IONA’  on a cruise to the Fjords by signing up to the email list of Broadway travelcruise. The prize is obviously a cruise but there are no details….

August 9th

Vote in the British Cruise Awards 2019 to enter a prize draw. The prize is a cruise for two on the brand new Carnival ship  Mardi Gras which launches in August 2020 – an ocean view cabin on a ship which will feature the worlds first-ever roller coaster at sea! 

August 9th

Best magazine is offering a a 15-night cruise for two to the Canary Islands and Madeira with Cruise & Maritime Voyages for your email signup to their mailing list.

August 12th

Molton Brown has created the new Seabourn Collection and are offering a  7-day Caribbean cruise aboard a Seabourn ship for 2 people with £1,500 cash to use towards your flights and transfers, in exchange for your for your email signup to their mailing list.

August 17th

Vote in the Wave Awards to win a luxury seven-night cruise in the Greek islands with Celestyal Cruises, including flights and transfers, through World of Cruising Magazine, in exchange for your for your email signup to their mailing list.

August 17th

World of Cruising have another Cruise & Maritime Voyages cruise on offer… 12-night ‘Easter Hidden Baltic Treasures’ for two in a twin ocean view, departing from London Tilbury on 11 April 2020, in exchange for your for your email signup to their mailing list.

August 17th

The Cruise Addicts community have competition to win some cruise goodies in their new River Cruise Addicts Facebook Group. Just join the group to enter.

August 22nd

Avalon Waterways have a competition to win a river cruise, valued at $11,772 for two people, twin share in a Panorama Suite, Category B. The cruise departs October 28, 2019. (Answer is BUDAPEST)

August 25th

Classic fm have teamed up with Viking Cruises to win an eight-day cruise includes return flights from London, in a Veranda Stateroom on board the award-winning Viking Longship, in Southern France on their Lyon & Provence itinerary. You need to be a registered subscriber to their website to enter. (Answer is VIENNE)

August 27th

Tesco Food Magazine have teamed up with Fred Olsen  to offer a prize of an eight-night Fred Olsen Cruise Lines ‘Into the Heart of Spain & Bordeaux’ (M2021) cruise, onboard Braemar ship, for two adults (18+). Winner and guest will share a Deluxe Balcony Room in exchange for your email signup to their mailing list.

Good Luck!!


Meet Nate, my cruising epiphany!


Here are Lucky, Nate and their entrepreneurial friends from Sitka, Alaska – who have changed my thoughts about cruising!!


We found them encamped at the Sitka port shuttle terminus in town,  where they had set up their picnic table stalls full of home baked cookies, decorated shells, homemade magnets and jewellery – some stalls were decorated with driftwood, bunting and even an otter pelt! They were all really pleased to see us, proud of their wares and eloquent about their town and its history.


We were very taken with these kids… it turned out that they had all paid $10 at the start of the season and that purchasing a pitch meant they were committing to being there every day there was a ship in port. Each stall had a little sign explaining who the kids were, with a little bit about their families and their hopes and dreams for the future.  Nate told me that is was the best way to save up money for college and that he’d been up since 05.00 cooking his various cookies and brownies – I asked if Mum had helped but no, “she’s at work”. I asked if they were missing out on the summer but all told me that they were happy to have the chance to be there, and as they could go once they had sold out, they got most afternoons free. They were all proud to have been selected to have a stand and the quality of their cookies was excellent…we had to sample a few to be sure! 


And it got me thinking….

Why don’t more ports do this? Isn’t an engraved abalone shell -picked up on a beach a few metres away and carefully etched 2019- a better  souvenir than a plastic grudge magnet that we all know are made in bulk in China and imported? Why don’t more ports and cities let their young people have direct access to visiting cruisers and the opportunity to sell their own homemade crafts and baked goods? If more of the “cruise dollar” found its way into individuals pockets rather than into the coffers of large multinationals would we be avoiding the backlash we are seeing in Barcelona, Tortola  Venice, Dubrovnik, St Martin, Amsterdam….


Its understandable in a way that we’ve made ourselves so unpopular in these places – we spend very little in comparison to visitors that stay in town overnight. What we do spend is quite often booked through the cruise line who have driven a hard bargain with local and national suppliers thus reducing the amount of money that reaches the pockets of the locals still further. In Alaska we were shocked to hear that cruise companies actually owned the jewellery shops that were on the list of “recommended stores”, further that all the privately owned shops that were listed would have paid handsomely to be featured.


Yet there were many quirky and lovely shops to be found in town, most with individual, local made products, such as these amazing wooden guitars, rather than mass produced ‘touristy ‘ items that we saw in every port (and in the shops on board!) – the Artists Cove in Sitka and Parnassus Books in Ketchikan being two examples.  It time to search for a locally owned coffee bar rather than use Starbucks just because it is familiar (Seattle excepted!!). 


So this is my new mission statement

  • I will be a better tourist -a Conscious Cruiser!
  • I will actively try and spend my money where it directly benefits local people.
  • I will look for locally made products when ashore and buy from locally owned businesses.
  • I will enjoy local colour and sights where I actually am and avoid rushing off to a tourist site miles from port where possible.

Lets see how we get on! I wonder if this could be the beginning of a new movement, a little like the ‘Slow Food’ movement – maybe we should start a Conscious Cruising movement and start to turn the tide of public opinion back towards a port being happy that a ship is arriving – lets bring back the excitement of a berthing that Lucky, Nate and friends all admitted to feeling! I let you know how we get on, maybe you might even want to join me and become a Conscious Cruiser – you might even come up with a better name!!!

I’d love to know what you think, please leave me a comment below!

Happy portExploring!

Is there such a thing as a Perfect Port?

As I spend my life writing about cruising and what do to ashore in port I am often asked, “Which is the best port, which one is your favourite?”

I  can’t really answer because of course, I don’t have one! It is impossible, there are so many wonderful places that you can visit on a cruise that one individual port in the whole world won’t stand out above all others. But the question got me thinking… I decided that there are definitely a few things that would go together to make my perfect port – see if you agree!

Early morning fjords breakfast view
Breakfast on the balsony, watching the view heading into Bergen Early morning fjords breakfast view

So first it would have to have a nice scenic approach (almost any of the Fjords?) maybe with a few pretty islands too, something to make it worth getting up early to sit on my balcony and watch the ship come in. Something to build up the anticipation and excitement!.

Regal Princess, Trieste
Regal Princess, Trieste

Then I think it would have to be a deepwater port so that the ship can dock alongside. It is not that I particularly dislike tender ports but they do seem to waste so much time. I hate all the queuing for tenders and much prefer to walk off the ship. Preferably straight into town so it will probably need to be an old port so that the harbour is an integral part of it (Trieste?) not be stuck out twenty miles away in the middle of an industrial wasteland (Laem Chabang?- see previous blog post!)

Cadiz Seafront
Cadiz Seafront

An old port usually comes with it a rich colourful history too, so that’s just perfect. I’m not a huge museum fan (unless its raining) but I really love the feel of an old port that has seen traders, soldiers, sailors and travellers pass through it for centuries (Cadiz?).  Those different cultures and influences show in the architecture of the town and finding a beautiful Cathedral, Church or Mosque really brings you to the heart of the city. If the town itself has been a wealthy trading post then I am perfectly happy walking around the beautiful merchants houses, shady market squares and old warehouses (Havana) for hours. Ports that have been homes to Conquistadores, Venetians, Crusaders, Romans or Ancient Greeks just beg you to see what you can find around the next corner (Split?) – maybe an old Roman Temple built into the side of a Christian Church…

Old Merchants square, Havana Cuba
Old Merchants square, Havana Cuba

Narrow cobbled streets are very picturesque and cool so a few of those would be great but as they are murder on the feet so maybe not covering the whole town (Trogir?). I do love a good city wall though, preferably one that completely encircles the city and maybe even climbs up some hills to give spectacular views back over town over the little town safely tucked inside it (Dubrovnik?). Sitting on the wall listening to church bells chime the hour in the town below…perfect!

Dubrovnik from the city walls
Dubrovnik from the city walls

Although of course, you get even better views from a mountain overlooking the port, so maybe we need one with a cable car or funicular (Gibraltar?) for a quick trip up to the top. We can get a blast of fresh air, a different perspective and amazing photos back down over the town, port and ship. Maybe we could walk back down for a bit of exercise or choose to come down by something a bit more exciting – maybe a toboggan ride (Funchal?) to bump us back down to town?!

Looking down on Dubrovnik from the cable car
Looking down on Dubrovnik from the cable car station

Once we’re back in the town I think we need to find a wonderful local Artisanal market, with some lovely local food – sausages, dried herbs and spices (Barcelona) and wine by the glass.

Le Boqueria Market, Barcelona
Le Boqueria Market, Barcelona

Or possibly some cool and shady bars with a sea view and some gentle music. A little light lunch, fresh seafood maybe, with a glass of local beer, people watching opportunities and a bit of free WiFi (Saint Martaan?). 

Perfect Beach Bar in Saint Martaan
Perfect Beach Bar in Saint Martaan

A little shopping next maybe? Nothing too much, just a few Arty little shops, selling jewellery and pottery or perhaps even a little light glass blowing (Tallinn). 

Glass Blowing and shop in Tallinn
Glass Blowing and shop in Tallinn

Then we could go for a gentle wander along the seafront, maybe take a short boat trip out to see the seals basking on the rocks(Soller?) or a rib-crunching back breaking rib ride?

beach and islands St kitts
A perfect Beach on St Kitts with Nevis in the distance

Alternatively, we could go to the local sandy beach for a swim and some snorkelling (St Kitts) and just a little paddle to cool our toes in the bright blue waters of the Aegean (Mykonos?) before heading back to the ship in time for tea.

perfect pier in Greece
Do you have time for a paddle in the Aegean?

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it! Yet although most cruise ports, especially in the Mediterranean or the Baltic have some, maybe even half of those things in one place, the majority of our fellow cruisers on the ship will have rushed off on a coach trip, driving miles inland to the nearest big city.

Rows of excursion coaches
Coaches on the Quayside – Laem Chabang

Madness – maybe! I would always rather be a traveller than a tourist but the upside of half the ship driving miles away is that it leaves the local town quieter for a visit from portExplorers just like us! 

A shady spot to have a break in cadiz
A quiet corner of Cadiz

What features would your perfect port have to include?


All photos by portExplore


Worst excursion and most stressful day ashore ever!

I wanted to share my thoughts on our ‘worst ever’ port excursion as we learnt some important lessons from it,  both about what to ask about when booking a shore excursion and also about what we took ashore with us that day. We were visiting Laem Chabang in Thailand on a Princess Cruise, which is what we call a ‘for’ port! It is a large industrial port ‘for’ Bangkok which is actually 125km away! Initially we had just planned to take a taxi along the coast to the much closer beach resort of Pattaya and maybe also visit an elephant sanctuary but after speaking to a friend and being convinced that it would be criminal to miss the Grand Palace in Bangkok we decided to book an excursion. The ships tour seemed to only cover the Palace and lunch before returning to the ship but an excursion available through Cruising Excursions offered both the Grand Palace and Wat Po, the Reclining Buddha, with no time wasted on lunch! We weren’t too concerned about eating as thought we would have a good breakfast, pack some snacks and see more of the city on that excursion. The company had a guarantee to always get you back to your ship on time so we booked. When the confirmation arrived we discovered that the entrance fees to the two main attractions of the tour (The Palace and Buddha) were not included and were to be paid directly to the tour guide in dollars. This actually made the ships and private tours pretty similar in cost over all but we were still happy to go with our choice because we thought we would see more. So lesson one is to check exactly what is included, we had never had to pay entrance fees separately before and so we didn’t even think to ask!


Cruising Excursions have an excellent reputation and provide excursions in most ports, however we did not realise that they do not run the cruising excursions themselves but subcontract local companies in each port. There were many people on on our trip who had used the company for multiple excursions on this cruise and were very happy with the service provided.  I should say at this point that when we complained to Cruising Excursions they dealt with the matter very efficiently and gave us a full refund of so this is not a complaint about them as a company, in fact we were impressed by how well they handled the situation. However it does show that you are at the mercy of the local operator that they subcontract to and as you have no way of knowing who that operator is you cannot check for any reviews or feedback about them whereas if you book directly with local companies you can make those checks yourself. As it turns out I think our main problem was with the individual tour guide not even the company that he was employed by but I want to share it with you because it was such an unpleasant and stressful experience. It is also a lesson in when you should speak up and not just do what you’re told!



On arrival in Laem Chabang we met in Arrivals as agreed and were surprised to find that the group was quite large and we were to travel by double decker coach. Again we had assumed that we would be in a small group of 8 to 10 people because previous private excursions that we have booked have been that sort of size. We really dislike large groups because of the slow pace that they tend to move at. So that is the second question we should have asked when booking! One couple were missing so we had to wait while our guide tried to contact them which meant that we finally left the port (without the) half an hour late.  Our tour guide ‘Chris’ spent quite some time explaining to us that the traffic was dreadful in Thailand and especially so in Bangkok. He explained that we would have to leave the city by three o’clock  at the latest in order to reach our ship as he didn’t want us all left behind. He was very concerned that this late start was going to make things difficult for the rest of the day .


He was an unusual guide, I don’t think I have ever had such a poor picture painted of a country and its inhabitants by the person who was being paid to show it to me! We started with a seemingly random description of how corrupt the police in Thailand were, he even gave us a short rundown of how much you would have to pay for each type of infringement including, weirdly, the amount you would have to  bribe the police if you killed someone! After an interesting explanation of the way to make money from your state provided accommodation, how to defraud a car hire company, how to get around State gambling laws and what extra services were available with various types of Thai massage Chris did not appear to be aware that he was painting the morality of his fellow countrymen in a fairly poor light.


Our guide then moved on to explaining that although lunch was not included by the company he felt it was essential as otherwise someone would ‘feel sick and giddy and have to go to hospital’, he suggested that he could organise a nice buffet in a hotel for everyone that would only cost $20 a head  and would be the quickest option for a large group  People said they were happy to just grab something as we went but we were told that local food would be bad for us & that you had to eat here for a few days before it didn’t upset you. Chris helpfully explained how Thai people fooled tourists by serving rat disguised as chicken and said that if you ate street food you would spend all afternoon in the toilet. At this point some of our more nervous companions decided that a nice buffet lunch would be for the best, those of us who did not want the lunch option were told there was nothing available in the vicinity so that we would just have to sit and wait for the others. One couple begrudgingly agreed to join the lunch on this basis.  Chris then announced that because we were so tight on time and how far apart Wat Po and the Grand Palace were ( more on this later…) and how strenuous and hothe walking would be around the two areas we were to visit that he proposed the we use Tuk  Tuks between them. It would cost about 100 Baht a head but save a long walk and add local colour to the day. Everyone everyone seemed happy with this idea so Chris toured  the coach collecting the US Dollars for the entrance fee, the lunch and the Tuk Tuks ( at times using an exchange rate that was frankly astounding!  As it turned out the company was quite bad at maths too as the actual entrance fee for the BuddhaIMG_0012turned out to be 100 Baht which should have converted to 3$ US not the 8$ US we were told that we would be charged. We spent an hour or so looking at the reclining Buddha and surrounding temple, Chris gave us no information about the history or about what we were seeing. Again, we would normally expect information either from a headphone system or from a guide not just to be taken to something and shown it but I suppose that the third question we should have asked! Will the guide show us around the places we are visiting? It did cross my mind that the difference between what we paid for the entrance and what it actually cost could have been for the hire of a sound system that we just didn’t get….?


We left the Reclining Buddha in the coach, drove straight past the Royal Palace and off through the Bangkok traffic to the Nuovo City Hotel which was twenty minutes away! We arrived to find that, exactly as we had expected, it was surrounded by extremely nice local cafes and restaurants. There was no way a hotel in central Bangkok is going to be more than inches away from a bar or restaurant! My husband and I declined Chris’ suggestion that we should sit in the foyer and wait for the rest of the group and we went out to find somewhere close by where we could keep an eye out for the coach returning.  Another couple  joined us after they demanded their money back from Chris because he had lied about the inaccessibly of alternative food. Those who had the buffet said it was fine and but overpriced, luckily the four of us who ate out, for less than the cost of one persons eating at the buffet, survived our experience and did not require hospitalisation!


On leaving the Hotel by coach Chris announced that it was a ‘very long way’ back to the Grand palace through the heavy traffic and that although he had said that we should use Tuk Tuks he now thought this was a bad idea because it would mean splitting up the group. He was afraid that someone would get left behind and lost, he was very good at playing on peoples fears! . ‘Luckily’ , he announced he had ‘just realised’ that his friend had a boat nearby and he could arrange for that boat to whiz us straight to the gates of the palace. That would save a lot of time and it would be just another 100 Baht a head. The only thing was that we shouldn’t tell others on the boat what we had paid as they would have paid $10 a head. So we set off on the boat whereupon the other tour guide announced to his group that both he and Chris were friends of the captain and how good it was of him to take us, so presumably they had been given the same spiel as us!

IMG_0017There followed a perfectly pleasant river trip, we saw the barge museum and fed cat fish by a temple, but it was not what we had booked and it certainly wasn’t quick!! We then dropped the other group at Wat Po and doubled back to the pier for the Grand Palace. We disembarked and walked to the entrance and I pondered lesson four which is that we should have stood up for ourselves a bit more and not been coerced into this boat trip. We knew that it had only taken twenty minutes to get there by coach, why did we believe him when he said it would take much longer to get back? Large groups seem to develop a herd mentality and lose the ability to think straight which is fine if you’re not being lied to….

IMG_0018By now it was 14.45 we had wasted two and a quarter hours going for a ‘quick’ lunch and we were back at a point only actually only about 5 minutes walk from where we had been at 12.30. Although the Grand Palace was supposed to be the main focus of the day Chris had chose to leave it to last so that now we were faced with the choice of only seeing it briefly or visiting it  at all in order to be certain of being back at the ship for 1830. A small group of us said that we thought we should leave  but Chris literally walked away from us and refused to discuss it even though it was him that had stressed at the start of the day that we should leave by 1500! 


It was obvious he was rattled but did not want to loose face and then little things started to go wrong and we began to lose even more time. Two people were refused entrance due to their dress, Chris was striding ahead so had to run back and tell them where to meet us, brushing aside an offer of a cover up from one of the ladies in our group. He then bought the entrance tickets but was one short so had to go back again. He tried to split the breakneck speed tour into short sections but twice didn’t ensure that everyone heard where and when to meet so we ended up with people waiting at two locations and wasting even more time… Eventually we left the palace an hour later having seen very little and understanding even less. It was obvious that Chris was now quite concerned, he was striding ahead without checking that we were keeping up. Luckily one of our youngest and fittest members went back to walk with two of our slowest as Chris just got on the bus and made a phone call. I checked on google maps and realised that with an estimated two hours twenty minutes journey time we were going to miss the boat by ten minutes….


There is nothing like thinking you are going to miss a ship boat to make to concentrate your mind on the resources you have with you. On this occasion we had chosen to go ashore without a credit card due to many warnings about pickpockets in busy Bangkok. The credit card wallet also contains the photocopies of our passports that we normally carry with us so we didn’t have those either, in fact we had no ID other than our cruise card. The other thing I have learnt that you should take ashore was a means of charging our mobiles phones, as after a day taking photographs and checking our ETA for the ship my phone was getting dangerously low and I hadn’t even taken the emergency power pack which was sitting uselessly in our cabin! A few three people on board the coach were also getting concerned because the took nightly medication which they did not have with them and I now think that I would not leave the ship with out a small supply of essential medication in my bag just in case of emergency.  So this is lesson five, just in case take bare essentials with you….


The traffic in the city was almost at a standstill and our ETA crept later and later, once we were free of the city the driver was going as fast as seemed safe but Chris disappeared to the lower deck of the bus and made no effort to communicate with us.  Suddenly the coach ground to a halt, a member of the group said they saw a flashing blue light. In less that thirty seconds we were on our way again & when questioned Chris said it was ‘police’. It seemed to have resolved very quickly if so! Or was it related to that  mornings discussion on bribe Tariffs? If we had been just tight on time rather than actually seriously late  ( and, it turned out, reporting our position to the port office at regular intervals…) would Chris have collected a bribe from us all so that the police didn’t hold us up. I’m not sure but his odd behaviour and money making activities all day do make me wonder…


One of our group was struggling quite badly with a panic attack by now so after some serious prompting from another passenger Chris finally came upstairs to tell us that the ship was waiting for us and was tracking our position. After an outburst of angry comment that he had not thought this worth mentioning before, he said that he was not prepared to speak to us anymore and walked off downstairs.  We finally reached the ship forty minutes late I have never been so relived in my life! As we disembarked Chris was holding out his hand for a tip….


The sixth thing I have learnt is that when you are in a large group tour like this that the cruise will wait as long as they can for you as long as they are receiving communications from the tour company about your position and ETA.  Obviously sometimes a falling tide or other issue will make that impossible and we were obviously getting close to some sort of deadline as they had prepared for the possibly that they would have had to leave us behind. Sitting by the gate was on officer in full uniform with his overnight bag at his feet and a box containing all our passports which had been brought ashore from the pursers office. Apparently he was ready to accompany us to the next port because we were such a large group, otherwise our passport s would have been given to the port agent. I was told that our costs probably have been paid for by Princess and then reclaimed from Cruising Excursions due to their ‘guarantee’ but in the event the money wasnt refunded we would have been liable for it.  I suppose being in a large group worked in our favour on this occasion, leaving thirty five people behind is probably harder than leaving eight!


So there we are, the whole day was appallingly badly handled, we gained very little understanding of Thailand and its culture. It appeared to be being run as a moneymaking exercise for the rep who we estimate made approximately 500 Bahts a head extra but would have been significantly more if I am correct about the fake police stop!  The affect of his moneymaking activities was that we wasted over two hours in a day with a tight schedule and then only spent  a very short time in the place that we all wanted to see with no information or guidance other than what was in the free tourist maps, it also meant that most people paid significantly more than they would have done on the ships tour. Cruising Excursions told us that Chris is no longer working for the tour company that they used and they gave us a full refund, as they did to other members of the group who complained . One of our group spent the next twenty four hours in the medical centre due to symptoms brought on by stress but had no long term effects as far as we know.


So our lessons learnt were….

1. CHECK exactly what is included before booking. If no meal is included check that one is not going to be added later.

2. ASK about group size and transport type if this is a concern for you.

3. ASK if you will be given any information on the places you will be visiting, either by the guide or a headphone system.

4.  STAND up for yourselves if you feel that the tour guide is making a mistake or changing parts of the tour.  Demand to know what is happening and document things if you are concerned.

5 TAKE a credit card no matter how concerned you are about its security, stick it in your shoe or bra if necessary. Also a phone charger and absolute bare minimum medication to get you to the ships next stop.

6 CRUISE ships try not to leave you behind and will make sure you have your passport if they have to go. It will either be with a ships officer or with the port agent.


There are a couple of Live videos from our day on our Facebook page if you want to take a look…..

Happy Cruising!

Missing Paradise but with added goats..


As we woke on the first morning of our cruise we were just arriving in Guadeloupe. The wooded slopes passing by our balcony doors were our first real view of the Caribbean, as we had arrived very late the previous evening in Fort De France and been transferred straight to the MSC Poesia. We had seen little of Martinique in the velvet darkness & the ship had left shortly afterwards. Two days previously we had left a foggy grey London for a crisp bright Milan. There we had spent the day exploring that city, wrapped in coats and hats, admiring the Christmas market and decorations. It was a bit surreal as we ate our first meal of the holiday in a family run trattoria, trying hard to remember that we were actually on the first stage of a Caribbean cruise!


We had checked our bags into the left luggage overnight at Milan Airport and once we picked them up and checked them in for our MSC charter flight we didn’t see them again until they arrived outside our cabin, most efficient! The flight itself was pretty good, we were the only British on board and all  the announcements were in Italian, so after each one a member of the crew was meant to come and translate for us. This wasnt needed at all as immediately at least three people turned round or came over to make sure that we had understood what had been said; it was the fastest way to make a lot of new friends at the start of a cruise that I have ever found


So after this protracted and very Italian start to our holiday it was slightly confusing to wake, tired, jet lagged and feeling slightly blurry round the edges, to find that we were in France! Guadeloupe was once a French Colony and is now actually a Département (Region) of France. The currency is the Euro and French is the official language (although Créole is used in daily life), laws and institutions the same in both places. This slight feeling of otherworldliness was further enhanced because the only thing we really knew  about Guadeloupe was that it is also the fictional island of Saint Marie, setting for our favourite winter escapist TV programme ‘Death in Paradise’, which for some reason has a British policeman installed as the Detective Inspector on  French island……



So as the sun came up we watched the low islands do by and admired the yachts anchored in the bay flying their tricolour ensigns. Beyond them, hidden in cloud, the slopes of the volcanic hills that stood between us and a rum punch in TV’s ‘Katherine’s Bar’…..

We left the ship through the pleasant little Saint-John Perse cruise terminal, very close to the centre of Pointe a Pitre. There wasn’t a huge amount there but a steel band played and there were obviously a lot of vendors setting up in the covered stall area but we had a plan so we weren’t to be  delayed by shopping! There is a courtyard where both  Cruise and Private Tour buses seemed to be waiting. Taxis were outside the security gate but the drivers largely seemed to be inside, obvious from the ubiquitous map on a clipboard. Many taxis are actually vans that are looking for groups of people to hire together and that might be quite a good idea as we had been warned that local taxi rates are quite expensive for the Caribbean. Their prices are closer to European rates although to be fair they are paying European taxes. As we wanted to go to the far side of the island,  and didn’t know anyone onboard with a penchant for fictional detectives,  we were expecting it to be quite pricey. We set off to find a taxi…..


Now I should say at this point that we had only booked this cruise, as a last minute holiday, about two weeks earlier. It was an extremely good deal, partly because we had to get ourselves to Milan and partly because we would be flying home on Christmas day! Consequently most of my holiday preparations had involved wrapping presents, filling the freezer and organising our girls and their partners to spend a day decorating our tree so that we could all have a lovely Christmas together when we got back (and they had all returned from their first  ‘in law’ Christmases!)  So although we had a plan for each port,  it wasn’t as detailed as we would normally expect to have! So on this particular morning our plan was simple…. Leave ship, get taxi to the fictional Honoré,  (In reality a pretty village called Deshaies on the north coast of Basse-Terre), a forty kilometre, one hour drive to the north coast of the island.  Sorted!

Euro currency all ready we set off to ask the first driver for a price. “why do you want to go there?” he asked. We tried to explain but he was firm, “not worth going, all shut”, so we tried other drivers  “ too far, road difficult, nothing there“. We got the message; no-one wanted to take us to Deshaies! Now since then I have spoken to people who have done that trip by taxi and also on been on an organised tour so I really don’t know what the problem was that day…..Early season? Sunday? Were there really problems on the road? Maybe they were not expecting UK ‘Death in Paradise’ fans on an MSC cruise?!? No idea but, as they say, discretion is the greater part of valour (no, me neither!) so we decided to change our plan and spend the day in town. We were tired, jet lagged and didn’t have a detailed enough idea of what our options really were; it would have been extremely silly to go against local advice and insist!


We  decided to just wander and see what we found, we had seen from the ship that Pointe-a-Pitre looked quite flat and pedestrian friendly.  Turning left out of the port gate and then right up Rue Schoelcher  took us past some stunningly dilapidated colonial mansions, very picturesque with their added vegetation. We walked up a gently sloping road to the Spice Market. Built in 1874 this is an an open sided, wrought iron structure, set in a square surrounded by cafes and bars. The market has lots of stalls run by local womene (mainly) and you seemed to be able to buy most things;  fruit, vegetables, hats, shoes, other tourist stuff and spices (obvs!) Weirdly we fell across very few spice markets on this Caribbean cruise & I really wish I had bought more at this one! The vanilla pods in particular were amazing value and excellent quality. The hat salesman seemed particularly happy and was swaying to the music from the bar. He invited me to dance with him but I am ashamed to say that I wasn’t yet in a Caribbean mood and I declined!  A troupe of dancers in local costume were obviously there because there were tourists in town but they were having a great time together and there seemed no suggestion that they wanted any money or were even that bothered about the visitors.


Pointe-a-Pitre is a small town and definitely much more interesting than it first appeared, although it seemed quite run down in some ways that added to its charm. We  decided to stay fairly central in town and not wander too far as we knew that Guadeloupe is officially the poorest part of France and subject to the usual warnings about being careful, especially not to flash expensive watches, cameras or jewellery about but to be fair we didn’t feel threatened at all in the town, even when we reached some slightly dodgier parts. We had a map from the tourist information booth but chose to ignore it, wander in a loop and see what we found, I always think the best thing is to look as if you know where you are going and what you’re doing even if you don’t!


We wandered on along Rue Saint John Perse – named, along with the cruise terminal, after the French Nobel Prize winning poet born in Guadeloupe in 1899. This information was on a street plaque, I  LOVE them and always have to stop to read,  but I have to admit that some of the following information was researched later as I was struggling to understand some of the older signs with my schoolgirl French! We followed the road through the town and found ourselves back at the waterfront at the foot of the Place de la Victoire. This area of grass and scrub was obviously once a central place in the history of the island. Guadeloupe has been occupied by the Spanish, French, British and even the Swedish in a rolling battle of wars and treaties brought on by greed for the islands great wealth and its sugar plantations.


At the time of the French Revolution this area is where Victor Hugues set up the islands Guillotine to behead monarchists who refused to free their slaves in line with the new French laws of equal rights for all (this eventually led to British rule in the island).  The victory referred to in the name of the square was the final time that the island changed hands, when the French retook it from the English in 1815. At the time the British still had slavery in their colonies whereas the French didn’t (not our finest hour!) so this is also where the abolition of slavery on the island is commemorated with a sculpture of 100 chains by local artist Jacky Poulier. We could see the  Slavery museum, The Memorial Acte, a little further along the waterfront, which was closed so we decided to carry on, up  away from the water and see the rest of the square. This showed what an elegant lifestyle there must have been on the island at the beginning of the 20th Century. We saw faded mansions,  the first cinema on the island which is now a bar and a lovely 1930s bandstand. The crisscrossing paths & statues of various governors and dignitaries showed that it must have once looked like a Parisian park….. although it doesn’t now!IMG_0988

It was then that we fell across one of our highlights of the day! At the top lefthand side of the park there was goat racing! No idea if its every week or just on this particular Sunday morning but we had fallen across the racing goat trials! We couldn’t quite work out if it was the goats or the drivers who were being trialled but it was brilliant fun to watch and we really felt part of local life! There were goats tethered around the square so that people could see their strength and size, apparently the main goat racing season is in the spring but they train in the months leading up to it. This was the start of that process; a pair of goats are tethered to a handmade wooden cart and pull a passenger as the driver  runs beside and keeps them in check. The animals are chosen for endurance, speed and strength and from what we saw the drivers are too! I’m not sure if all the drivers are kids (none intended!) or if we just caught the junior  division but it was all being taken very seriously and I have to say that I wouldn’t have been able to hold onto those goats if my life depended on it! How they actually teach them to do a proper circuit is beyond me, I was quite glad we caught them early when it was so obvious how hard it was and we spent a jolly hour or so cheering everyone on, wonderful!


Heading back into town past the old presbytery we found a lovely little market square with a flower stall ( apparently there are more in the week) but we looked at the exotic blooms for a while before turning our attention to the Saint Louis Cathedral which was right behind us! Built at the end of the 19th century after the previous cathedral was destroyed by fire,  this version is built in iron with a 200 ft high spire, rounded windows and  a metal framed roof that managed to put me in mind of  both several large London Railway terminals and the Eiffel Tower! There is a beautiful Carrara marble altar, wooden benches, a light and airy interior and a wonderfully friendly congregation! It turned out that we had just crashed a large christening and the church was full of smartly dressed families all celebrating together.  We quietly made to leave but were shooed into a pew by a jolly lady in a large white hat and so managed to hear some singing that made me well up!


I’ve been told variously that the cathedral was designed by Eiffel, that it was designed by his friend Picq but built by Eiffel’s own team of engineers and also that it has nothing to do with Eiffel at all! So I will leave that for you to investigate, either way it is definitely worth seeing the interior although it is in need of some repair as you can see from the added traffic cones in the pictures.


By now if was nearly lunchtime and we wandered back down to the harbour looking for a bar on a nice terrace but we seemed to have hit the wrong part of town somehow as nothing was really open and then suddenly we were back at the ship. So that was our day in Guadeloupe, we hopped off again later for a quick look at the Duty Free and the craft market outside the terminal but spent the rest of the day investigating the pools and bars on the ship.

IMG_4631 2

Our completely unplanned morning has given me a very soft spot for Guadeloupe and its people! Hopefully we will be back one day and see more of the island, maybe even get to Honore….


My Guilty Secret…

I have a guilty secret! There Ive said it!! My family all know it and laugh at me behind my back but I have to admit it here and get it off my chest…….. I am obsessed with stationery.

Every project, trip or holiday has to have a new folder, and the minute we even start thinking about booking a cruise it has to have its own notebook too! Bright, maybe in fuchsia or aqua, the folder will fill with everything I need to know about our plans. Tickets, bookings, printouts, articles ripped out of magazines, insurance documents, luggage tags……..FOLDER!

Itinerary, packing list, plans, scribbled notes of recommendations from friends, budget calculations, phone numbers, Idiots guide to local currencies ( I drive my husband mad….”knock off two zeros and divide in two and add a bit” …he just remembers the exchange rate but I really can’t!!)…..NOTEBOOK!

The folder eventually gets tidied up, its contents filed away or used but my little notebooks stay with me, tucked away in my bedside cabinet like a guilty secret. When the cruise they always be a lasting reminder of everything we did, I couldn’t bear to part with them, just looking at my little notebooks makes me happy!

Comment below, are you a notebook addict too?

 Beautiful notebook and folder from The Magic Notebook      
Beautiful notebook and folder from The Magic Notebook


Stormy solent delayed arrival


Leaving Southampton on a mini cruise to Bruges on a crisp November evening we were lucky to be treated to a spectacular sunset. The cruise was partly just to give us a chance to investigate the port and partly in order to give P&O another try, having become disillusioned with them a few years ago. We were onboard Ventura, so not one of their newest ships but even so we were largely pleasantly surprised and will be happy to add them back into our list of cruise lines to consider in future  We were really lucky with the weather, our day at spent at sea, was stunning and much better than we had any right to expect in November.IMG_2485

Our cabin was excellent, the food fine, wines good and the shows of a really high standard. I wasn’t a huge fan of the modern art but other aspects of the decor were unusually restrained and I didn’t feel I needed sunglasses on to look at some of the carpets!


Bruges was pleasant as always, it isn’t the most convenient of ports and however you go from the port to the town it will involve some walking. However it is very beautiful, clean, compact and safe with lots to see and do so defiantly worth getting off the ship if



you dock here. Our visit coincided with the first weekend of the Christmas Market so that was our primary focus (we arranged a 5 Euro ‘secret Santa’ type challenge with the  other guests on our table which turned out to be hilarious) and we enjoyed fullsizeoutput_16b1

watching the ice skating in the main square and sampling the local food  and drink stalls. In the main we are outdoor people when travelling. If the weather is good we really like nothing more than to explore the main streets and the hidden corners of a city on foot. If the weather is poor we will happily spend the day in art galleries and museums but we would both much rather just see the city and its people.



Our journey home coincided with a sudden depression sweeping through the channel with gusts of over 35 knots. We knew we had been too lucky with the weather! The pilot came on board at 05.00 as planned (rather him than me!) but the decision was made to abort the approach to Southampton Water and head back out to sea. The 07.00 call from

the Captain was a surprise as we expected him to say that we were in dock rather than that were were just entering the Solent for the second time, heading for a different terminal than we had left from. It really is amazing that the wind could have been that strong and yet it really wasn’t rough enough to even wake us up! Even the Red Funnel Ferry tucked herself in our wind shadow for a bit of protection as we crept slowly into the Solent.


But obviously this delay still had  had knock on effects, the rooms still needed to be turned around and readied for the next guests, the self carrying passengers couldn’t leave early and were still on board for breakfast with the rest of us and the ship was heaving with vaguely irritated and grumpy passengers with disrupted travel plans.As the wind dropped away we were able to return to our original Terminal which was a relief as I imaging sorting out how to get everyone back to their cars would have taken a while! P&O were excellent, they kept us informed at all times, opened up extra spaces for people to sit and wait, had two sittings for breakfast and handled the long queue to disembark extremely well. The restaurant staff were pleasant and unhurried and the full breakfast menu including specials was available until an hour after the advertised closing time.


I can’t speak for the buffet where I imagine things were more fraught but the main dining room breakfast was excellent and we were really impressed given the circumstances. We finally docked about two and a half hours behind schedule but were only about an hour and a half late off the ship.


Very impressive, well done P&O!!


P&O Ventura to Bruges – November 2017